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By Eric Barker
December 16, 2015

So what’s going to make you happy? Let’s get more specific: what’s going to make your brain happy? And let’s focus on things that are simple and easy to do instead of stuff like winning the lottery.

Neuroscience has answers. I’ve discussed this subject before and it was so popular I decided to call an expert to get even more dead simple ways to start your brain feeling joy.

Alex Korb is a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UCLA and author of The Upward Spiral.

So let’s get to it. Alex has some great suggestions for simple things you can do to feel happier every day…

1) Listen To Music From The Happiest Time In Your Life

Music affects the brain in an interesting way: it can remind you of places you have listened to it before.

Were you happiest in college? Play the music you loved then and it can transport you to that happier place and boost your mood. Here’s Alex:

I hope you weren’t happiest in elementary school because it’s going to be weird if you’re playing the Barney song or the Sesame Street theme around the house.

(To learn more about what the music you love says about you, click here.)

Now you can’t listen to music everywhere you go. What does neuroscience say you should do when you have to take those earbuds out?

2) Smile — And Wear Sunglasses

The brain isn’t always very smart. Sometimes your mind is getting all this random info and it isn’t sure how to feel. So it looks around for clues. This is called “biofeedback.” Here’s Alex:

You feel happy and that makes you smile. But it works both ways: when you smile, your brain can detect this and say, “I’m smiling. That must mean I’m happy.”

So happiness makes you smile, but smiling can also produce happiness. Feeling down? Smile anyway. “Fake it until you make it” can work. Here’s Alex:

In fact, research shows smiling gives the brain as much pleasure as 2000 bars of chocolate, or $25,000.

And so what’s this about sunglasses? Bright light makes you squint. Squinting looks a lot like being worried. So guess what biofeedback that produces? Yup. Your brain can misinterpret that as being unhappy.

Sunglasses kill the squint and can help tell your brain, “Hey, everything is okay.” Here’s Alex:

So smile. And wear those sunglasses. They can make you look cool and make you happier.

(For more on how to be happier and more successful, click here.)

So you have your music playing, you’re smiling and wearing your sunglasses. But you can still be stressed about things. What should you think about to kill your worries and keep yourself happy?

 

3) Thinking About Goals Changes How You See The World

And I mean, literally. Researchers flashed a bunch of circles on a screen in front of study subjects. One of the circles was always slightly different than the others. It was brighter or smaller, etc.

But when they told people to prepare to point at or try to grab the circles something crazy happened

If they thought about pointing at the circles, they became better at noticing the brighter circle.

If they were told to think about grabbing a circle, it was easier for them to identify the smaller circle.

What’s that mean? Having a goal literally changed how they saw the world.

So when you’re feeling stressed or challenged, think about your long-term goals. It gives your brain a sense of control and can release dopamine which will make you feel better and more motivated. Here’s Alex:

(To see the schedule the most successful people follow every day, click here.)

Sometimes you can try all these little tricks and it doesn’t feel like it’s making a bit of difference. That’s often because you’re missing something that’s really key to good brain function…

4) Get Good Sleep

We all know depression messes up how people sleep. But what’s interesting is it’s actually a two way street: bad sleep also causes depression. Here’s Alex:

So how do you improve your sleep? Alex has a number of suggestions:

(To learn everything you need to know about having the best night’s sleep ever, click here.)

All this little stuff to feel better is good. But if you’re not getting stuff done at work it’s going to be hard to stay happy. What’s neuroscience say about building good habits and conquering procrastination so you can stay smiling?

 

5) How Neuroscience Beats Procrastination

Your brain isn’t one big ol’ lump of grey goo that’s perfectly organized. Far from it. Think of it a little more like a bunch of your relatives arguing at the dinner table during a holiday get together.

When it comes to the choices you make and the things you do, Alex says there are 3 regions you need to be concerned with. You don’t need to memorize the names. It’s just important to realize they all get a vote:

  • The Prefrontal Cortex: The only one thinking about long-term goals like, “We need to prepare that report for work.”
  • The Dorsal Striatum: This guy is always voting to do what you’ve done in the past, like, “When it’s time to work we usually start by checking email 9 times, then Facebook, and then watching Netflix.”
  • The Nucleus Accumbens: The party animal of the three. “Email, Facebook and Netflix are fun. Work sucks.”

So guess what you end up doing? Yeah… Ouch.

But when you exert effort, the prefrontal cortex can override the other two and do the right thing. Repeat this enough times and you rewire the dorsal striatum: “We usually start reports quickly. I vote we do that again.

That’s how the brain builds good habits. So why don’t we do that more often? Often the culprit is stress. Here’s Alex:

So if you want to build good habits and stop procrastinating, the first thing to do is reduce stress. (The best ways to do that are here.)

Procrastination is often a vicious circle because you delay, then you have less time to complete the project, so you get more stressed, procrastinate more, have even less time, which makes you even more stressed and… well, you get the idea.

So what’s the answer? After a little something to reduce stress, find one small thing you can do to get started. This focuses you and prevents the overwhelm that knocks the prefrontal cortex out of the conversation. Here’s Alex:

(To learn 5 weird but effective ways to conquer chronic procrastination, click here.)

Time to round up everything we learned. Alex gave us six great…

Wait. Did I only say “5” in the headline? Okay, you’re getting a bonus. Keep reading for Alex’s #1 easy thing to do to cause an upward spiral of happiness in your life…

 

Sum Up

Here’s what you can learn from Alex about how neuroscience can bring happiness:

  • Listen to music from the happiest time in your life: Let’s hope you had good taste when you were happiest.
  • Smile and wear those sunglasses: You don’t have to wear them indoors. That would be dumb.
  • Think about your goals: It changes how you see the world and releases happy chemicals in your noggin.
  • Get your sleep: Depressed people don’t sleep well. And people who don’t sleep well get depressed.
  • Beat procrastination by reducing stress and doing a simple thing to get started: Listen to those happy-era tunes and then assemble all the materials you need to get cranking.

And what’s that #1 thing that Alex says can start an upward spiral of happiness? It’s dead simple:

Go for a walk outside every morning, preferably with a friend.

Yup, that’s it. How can something so incredibly simple be so powerful? Here’s Alex:

Right now: share this post with a friend and ask them to join you for a walk tomorrow morning. That’s it. (And wear your sunglasses.)

Go outside. Put one foot in front of the other. Smile with a friend. And you’re on your way to neuroscientific happiness.

Looks like it really is the simple things in life that bring us joy.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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